You’re doing it wrong: how not to write a novel

[author's note: Hello! If you're here to read You’re doing it wrong: how not to write a novel, you're in good company - I'm getting around 2000 reads a month for this article, so I must be doing something right! While you're here, I have a new (February 2016) novel out from Gollancz. It's the start of a portal fantasy that's getting some excellent reviews, so if that's the sort of thing that interests you, click through to the Down Station page for more information.]

 

These are my notes from my Greenbelt 2011 workshop (Monday 13:30 Crest). This does include some of the material I skipped in order to wedge everything into the just-under-two hour mark (and I was worried I didn’t have enough material for 60 mins…).

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You’re doing it wrong: how not to write a novel: a Greenbelt 2011 talk by Simon Morden

Before you write

Don’t read
If you haven’t read enough books by now in order to work out what you’re looking for in a novel – what’s good, what’s bad, what works, what doesn’t – go and do so now.

Don’t know anything about the genre you’re writing
I’m not saying that you need to read the entire canon of science fiction from Mary Shelley to Charlie Stross in order to write SF, or bone up on everything from Mallory to George Martin before writing epic fantasy. But it does help if you firstly, love the genre in which you’re writing, and secondly know enough of the tropes (literary conventions and devices particular to a genre) to be able to use, avoid or subvert them, and thirdly, know enough to be able to avoid clichés. And you want to avoid clichés, right?

Don’t write
You talk endlessly about writing a novel, but you don’t actually sit down and write. Until you put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, what you have is the wish to write, not a work in progress.

Chase the last fad
Don’t decide to see what’s “big” in your chosen genre and start writing something similar. Everything that’s being published now was sold at least two years ago when what’s popular now wasn’t popular. By the time (one year, at least) you submit your manuscript, it’ll be ‘so last year’, and publishers and agents will be looking for something else.

Hate what you write
Writing is not going to make you rich and it’s going to take up a lot of time. So write what you’d like to read because life’s too short to spend upwards of a year writing some old guff even you hate.

Write using someone else’s characters
Aka Fan-fic. There’s a thriving fan-fic community writing stories containing their favourite literary characters. The copyright problems with this are simply insurmountable and no one will ever publish a book you’ve written like that. Shared universes, yes, Young Bond etc, yes, but those are jealously guarded and the authors are always contracted and use a “Bible” to guide them.

While you are writing

Give up the day job
The first time I made actual proper money from writing was 2007, by which time I’d been writing for almost two decades. You can do the maths yourself, but starving in a freezing garret isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You don’t write because you want to make a living out of it. You write because you have to. If and when you get paid for it, count yourself very fortunate.

So let’s talk cold, hard cash for a moment. JK Rowling got an advance of £1500 for HP and the Philosopher’s Stone. Do you think she lived on that while she wrote the next book? No. The median advance now for a first novel is around £2-3000. Can you live on that? The median wage in the UK (2007-8) was £18500. The figures speak for themselves.

Don’t write fiction
Write what you know: that’s the maxim. It’s a bit more difficult when you’re writing SF or fantasy, but that’s a different discussion. Remember that you’re writing fiction, not a biography, even an autobiography. But even if you avoid that pitfall, there is a tendency to put in bits of your real life that while they might not be obvious to you, will be to your friends, your family and your work colleagues.

Writing fictionalised accounts of real people is perfectly acceptable, but normally only if they’re very dead. Doing it to your parents, your partner, your siblings, your kids or your boss can, and does, lead to a whole world of pain and regret.

Put in a Mary Sue
A Mary Sue is a literary term for a character who is the author. Actually the author – perhaps stronger, smarter, more attractive, with superpowers, magical abilities, vast wealth and incredible talent – but the author nevertheless. Don’t. It’s not pretty.

Write a novel where everyone is just like you
This is a pet peeve of mine, so apologies for mounting this particular high horse. Not everyone in the world is white, middle class and educated. Which is more or less what I am. The pull to write a book featuring only white, middle class people is huge, but entirely resistible.

My first novel, Heart, had half the story told from the point of view of a German detective. My second, The Lost Art, had three protagonists: a Russian monk, a Berber traveller and a Kenyan scientist. The Metrozone series, despite being set in London, features Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese, Japanese, Nigerians and Americans. Only two characters are white, only one is a middle class Londoner. It can be done, even by white, middle class englishmen.

Write a novel that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test
The what? I hear you ask. Alison Bechdel, web comic writer, came up with a rule that concerns women characters. In order to pass the test, your book must meet the following criteria: it includes at least two women, who have at least one conversation, about something other than a man or men.

This is basic stuff. As much as I’d like to think that the world revolves around my gender, it doesn’t. Write women characters who talk to each other about something other than men. That would be brilliant.

Publish the chapters as-you-go on the internet
That’s your first English rights gone, and that’s what publishers will be buying. Don’t.

Don’t finish
A novel has a beginning, a middle and an end. Anything without an end is an unfinished novel, not a novel. Writing is surprisingly hard work – it takes time spent in isolation, it’s time you could be using to invest in relationships, work or other hobbies. It requires a considerable amount of emotional and intellectual energy.

I challenged myself to do NaNoWriMo last year – National Novel Writing Month (November) – where you pledge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. 1667 words a day. It’s difficult. You end up in a waking dream where you’re no longer certain where reality ends and your novel starts. But not as bad as a friend who wrote an 80,000 words tie-in book in six weeks. You’re usually looking to write a book in between six months and a year, working steadily throughout.

Write short
Most publishers will want a novel to be at least 65,000 words long, and the normal range is between 80,000 and 110,000 words. If you come in short, it’s not a novel. There are places which will publish a 40000 word novella – try them instead.

Write long
That said, for a first novel, you really do need to pitch it at the length the publishers want, not what you want. There is slack at the top end – if you’ve written a massive fantasy brick of 250,000 words, you will find a lot fewer places you can send it to unless you can carve it up into three 80,000 word instalments.

Think you’ve finished when you’ve finished
When you’ve written the words “The End” at the bottom of the last page, allow yourself a pat on the back and a fresh cup of tea. Finishing a novel-length manuscript is a considerable achievement, but it’s only the start of it.

You need to edit the manuscript. You need to reread it. You need to make sure that each sentence makes sense to you, that you’ve spelt words correctly and consistently, that you’ve used grammar in a standard English fashion. You need to make notes about what you think you need to change.

After you have finished writing

Don’t show your novel to anyone else
Obviously, if your looking for publication, you’re going to need to show it to someone sooner or later. You really, really, don’t want the first person who reads your manuscript to be the agent you’re trying to get or the editor of the publisher you want a contract with. The reasons are self-evident, but I’ll spell them out. You have one shot. One. Make it count.

If your manuscript is riddled with spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, or you’ve ripped the entire plot from Twilight/Harry Potter/Tolkien, you don’t want find out from people who are looking for an excuse to turn you down. Simply put, if you’re serious, you need to put your manuscript in as many hands as possible, and then act on the feedback you get. Seriously.

Don’t change anything
It’s finished, it’s perfect. You don’t need to alter a word. Respectfully, I disagree, but my opinion isn’t the important one here. If you want to seek publication, it’s agents and editors you need to impress. And not only do you need to acknowledge that your manuscript requires editing, they need to know that you’re editable. Are you going to argue with every last suggestion they make? Even if you’ve got a novel of startling genius and originality, it’s never going to get published if you’re impossible to work with.

Don’t think the rules apply to you
They do. They really do. Asking an agent or a publisher to consider your work is a job in itself. They will all have subtly different submission criteria that are designed to make their job easier – not yours. You are unimportant. They want the first three chapters and a synopsis with a covering letter, that’s exactly what you need to give them. They want those chapters double-line spaced. Do it. If they have a word limit on those chapters, stick to it. Check if they take email queries before emailing them

They will be getting hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions a week. You make them pay attention to yours not by being wacky and out-there, but by sticking to the rules. And never ever call them.

Really don’t think the rules apply to you
This is worth repeating, because the commonest complaint that agents and publishers have against the submissions that land on their desks is that a high proportion of them are simply wasting their time.

You should, in general, have the following as a bare minimum:

1) a finished manuscript that you wrote yourself from an original idea you had, that you’ve checked scrupulously for spelling and grammar errors, that at least one other competent adult has done the same for, and commented on the quality of the writing, and whether or not the story you’ve told makes any sort of sense.

2) a excerpt containing the first three chapters or up to whatever word limit is mentioned, formatted exactly how the agent or editor wants it – commonly in a 12 point serif font, double spaced, with indented paragraphs. Not three chapters at random, but the first three chapters.

3) A synopsis which tells the story of the story, commonly over one or two sides of A4, detailing the plot arc, the principle characters, their history and motivations, and how they change because of the story, and what sort of reader would be likely to buy your novel.

4) A covering letter, addressing the agent or editor by name, containing who you are, the title of the work you are offering, which genre it’s in, how long it is, and any previous publishing credits. You may also include a small biographical detail, but not always. Make sure you’re sending it to the right person, at the right place, and that they take that sort of work. Then be prepared to wait.

Spend no time at all on your synopsis
I will happily admit that my least favourite writing task is writing a synopsis. It is an art in itself, and it’s one I absolutely suck at. A good synopsis will not be a dry scene by scene description of what happens in your novel, but will be a story about your novel. It’s unlikely that a single word of your novel will make it into the synopsis – instead, get me excited to read the actual thing. It’s your best advert for your novel: if someone reads it and gets enthused by it, they’ll read your sample chapters. Consequently you should sweat blood over this thing, and take every care over it that you took over your novel.

Submit science fiction thrillers to a romance publisher
And yet people still do. They send poetry to prose publishers, kid’s picture books to agents who don’t represent that sort of work. If you’re lucky, they’ll reply. More likely, they’ll just bin it and move on to the next one.

Expect them to get straight back to you
Or even get back to you within three months. Six months is not unheard of, especially if you’ve submitted your manuscript to a publisher’s slush-pile. The volume of submissions is scary-big, and when you send your letter, you’ll end up at the bottom of an already very large pile which will be dealt with in strict time-order.

Often what happens is this: the job of initially sorting through the submissions is given to the most junior member of staff in the office. They’re not paid to read through your manuscript – they’re paid to check whether or not you are firstly, sane, and secondly, can follow the rules. Then and only then will your submission be passed to the second-most junior member of staff, to work out whether or not it’s worth an editor’s time reading what you’ve written.

Expect to sell at the first place you submit to
JK Rowling’s agent submitted the first Harry Potter to twelve different publishers before Bloomsbury took it – but she did have an agent. And some consider it more difficult to get an agent than to get a publisher. You have to be methodical. You need to make a list, order it in anyway you see fit (alphabetically, by likely success, randomly), and work your way through. It might be the last name on your list is the one who takes you on.

If you get a rejection, don’t mope. Send it out the very same day to the next name on your list – after checking what it is they want, exactly. You need to tailor your submissions like you’re applying for different jobs. Which, in effect, you are.

Write one novel
You’ve a novel in hand that you’re happy with. You’ve edited it, shown it to other people, heeded their criticisms and re-edited it. You’ve sent a three-chapters and synopsis to an agent(s) and publisher(s). One of the things you need to do now is start another one. Don’t wait for the first to be snapped up for a five-figure sum – the odds are very much against you – but your second one might. Everything you learnt writing your first novel, you can apply in your second. It will be better. That’s the one that might be your breakthrough. Also, publishers will want to see both commitment, and potential. They’re not going to waste their marketing money on a one-novel author.